Sunday, 12 August 2007

His final moment nears

Published Sunday, August 12, 2007
By Stephanie Taylor Staff Writer

TUSCALOOSA - Not many people know the exact date and time they will die. Luther Jerome Williams does. He has 11 days.John Robert Kirk didn’t. Williams decided that for him.

As a 20-year-old sailor in the Navy, Kirk had survived World War II and its bloody allied invasion of Omaha Beach in 1944.But in 1988, at the age of 63, he was gunned down by a stranger for his wallet and truck.Williams was sentenced to death in 1989 for shooting Kirk as he tried to repair his truck on the side of the interstate on Jan. 23, 1988.Williams and two other young men were accused of robbing Kirk and shooting him execution-style near the West Blocton exit of Interstate 20/59 and leaving him for dead.Williams, now 48, was 28 at the time and an escaped convict.

He is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. on Aug. 23.Williams’ post-conviction attorneys say he deserves to live because he has mental problems and may not have pulled the trigger.But the Tuscaloosa attorney who prosecuted the case says that Williams is a perfect example of why the death penalty exists.“John Robert Kirk was an absolutely innocent victim," said Danny Lemley, a former assistant district attorney now in private practice. “Luther is why they have the death penalty. That could have been anybody that he killed."The other men accused of Kirk’s murder pleaded guilty to less serious charges of felony murder and received life sentences.Trosky Gregory, now 43, is serving his sentence at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, with the possibility of parole. Albert Carmichael Jr., now 45, was paroled May 3, 2004.

Williams’ attorneys have filed a federal suit challenging the state’s method of lethal injection. The case is before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals with a request for a stay of execution.Tuscaloosa attorney Joel Sogol said that Williams had inadequate representation during his trial, partly because the state provided little money for the defense and not enough for a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation.A troubled pastAfter Williams’ conviction, psychiatrists at Taylor-Hardin concluded that “the only diagnosis for Williams would be that of antisocial personality disorder. They noted no other evidence of mental illness and stated that Williams was within normal ranges of intelligence," according to an investigation report from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Sogol said he doesn’t buy that.Instead of an in-depth evaluation, a social worker spoke with Williams briefly a week before the trial, he said. Sogol and Rhode Island attorney Chris Little were unable to get money from the state for post-conviction tests, which could cost several thousand dollars.“It’s very likely he has mental problems," Sogol said. He says Williams is probably borderline mentally retarded and has other mental illnesses. Sogol said the state should provide money to conduct the tests.“If you’re going to kill somebody, why not make sure that everything’s right?" he asked.

Williams has been very quiet during Sogol’s visits, he said, and has never been aggressive.“He had a horrendous childhood," Sogol said.But the jury didn’t have a chance to hear about that. Williams’ defense counsel did not call any witnesses to testify about his troubled childhood, Sogol said. He said if jurors had gotten a better picture of Williams’ life and mental issues, he might have received a less harsh punishment.According to court documents, Williams was first arrested at 16 for burglarizing a coin-operated machine. He was arrested 15 more times before he killed Kirk and was convicted five times, not including the murder conviction.The charges included burglary, receiving stolen property, armed robbery and drug charges. He served years in prison on some of the charges and had escaped from a work release program a week before Kirk was killed.

Court files indicate that Williams was abandoned by his parents and lived with his grandmother in Birmingham until she died when he was 7. He then lived with his sister’s grandmother, who adopted the children before she died in 1989.His attorneys wrote in an appeal that he was often locked out of his home as a teenager and at age 16 was only 4 feet, 10 inches tall and 65 pounds.Williams was expelled from school after a fight, when he was a 20-year-old ninth-grader. He told a parole officer in 1990 that he had been seeing two girls, and he “popped" one of them because he thought she was going to stab him.Williams told officials that he began shoplifting at about age 9 or 10 but was never arrested for a crime until he was 16.

Records from Taylor-Hardin Secure Medical Facility that were referenced in court documents note several scars Williams bore. Two were from an operation on his left jaw after he was struck by “a flying object" in 1981, and another was for back surgery after he was stabbed that same year. He has a scar from a fight at a football game and another from a fight with a girlfriend.He reported an extensive history of alcohol and marijuana use and said he had drunk a half-gallon of whiskey and smoked a “dime bag" of marijuana the night before Kirk’s murder.Williams told the parole officer that he had worked for a property management company doing masonry, but the company was unable to verify his employment.

The victimJohn Robert Kirk was heading home to Gordo from his job in Helena on that cold January night in 1988.Some nights, he stayed in a travel trailer near the Plantation Pipeline Co. Other nights, he made the drive down Alabama Highway 25, got on Interstate 20/59 at Exit 97 and drove the rest of the way home to Gordo.It was on one of these nights that Kirk decided to make the 80-mile trip. For some reason, he stopped alongside the interstate ramp. Homicide investigators believe he was having trouble with the brakes on his Chevrolet pickup.His body was found in the woods 200 feet from the ramp.

Autopsy results indicated that Kirk had probably been forced to his knees before he was killed with a single bullet to the back of the head.“This is a straightforward, clean case all around -- a no-brainer," said Lemley, who is now in private practice in Tuscaloosa. “What they did is horrible, and there need to be consequences.“John Robert Kirk was a veteran. He was a hard-working man. He worked all his life. These were just good people."Kirk’s wife, Norma, died several years ago, Lemley said. He said Williams should have been put to death during Norma Kirk’s lifetime. The couple’s only child, Karen, is married and lives in Florida.

Norma Kirk spoke to The Tuscaloosa News after her husband’s murder.She said her husband was an active 63-year-old who enjoyed his work. He worked for Plantation Pipe Line Co. for 37 years, and he was eligible for retirement with full benefits two years before his death.“He often spoke of 'when I retire,’ but anyone who heard him knew that he was not talking about tomorrow," Norma Kirk told reporter Harry Satterwhite for a story on Feb. 1, 1988. “He enjoyed his job, and his fellow employees."She said her husband loved being outdoors and had sought a postsecondary degree in biology from the University of Alabama, but stopped just before his dissertation. He graduated from Livingston University in 1951.

“He fed the birds daily," she said. “He did not hunt, but he enjoyed watching the birds and other wildlife. His most-used books were those on birds."The Kirks lived in the Kirk community in Pickens County, which at the time of his death no longer had a post office, but still appeared on state maps. The Kirks lived on 185 acres that had been in his family for four generations. He is buried in the family cemetery in Mount Olivet.Running out of timeWilliams’ murder conviction has been upheld at every step of the appeals process. His last chance to live is the lawsuit his attorneys filed in U.S. District Court that challenges Alabama’s method of execution.It claims the state does not use medically approved procedures or properly trained staff and that Williams will suffer excruciating pain during the execution.A federal judge dismissed the case, but Williams has appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. His attorneys have asked for a stay of the execution pending the outcome. Similar suits filed by death row inmates have been unsuccessful.

Reach Stephanie Taylor at or 205-722-0210.

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